If you’re familiar with the cartoon character Dilbert, you might be wondering what he has to do with small business. After all, he’s a character primarily focused on corporate life. Please! bear with me audience, by the end of this story you’ll see how this all relates. In this quasi-book review/hard-luck story, I promise you’ll not only receive a good explanation of the Dilbert Principle but also witness it in action. Unfortunately, the example I’m going to share with you involves a level of gross incompetence that is, quite frankly, heartbreaking. So, get ready to see just how far this principle can reach and just how wild the story gets towards the end.
Now for those of you who may not be familiar with Dilbert. The character known as Dilbert is a popular comic strip created by Scott Adams. Often, Adams liked to poke fun at office life and corporate culture through his character Dilbert. Since its debut in newspapers in 1989, Dilbert has become a beloved series, inspiring books, TV shows, and other merchandise. Also, it’s worth noting Adams has recently come under fire for making racist remarks. We won’t delve into that, for it’s a contributing article for another site at another time. But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to agree with the creator’s views to appreciate his work.
So, let’s talk about the Dilbert Principle. In 1996, Adams wrote a book entitled The Dilbert Principle. As according to Adams’ theory, companies often promote their most incompetent employees to management positions. Why? To minimize the damage that they can do throughout a business!
Back in 2014, I read this book, and quite frankly I found the Dilbert Principle to be hilarious for its sarcastic tone. It tries to act like a serious book; however, it’s mixed with comedy, complete with witty jokes and cartoon strips. And the best part, this is all based on real-life situations. The characters, settings, and attitudes depicted in the book are spot-on reflections of what goes on in the business world in corporate America.
To further flesh out Dilbert, he was a mid-level executive administrator who worked for several fictitious companies. In the early days of the comic strip, Dilbert worked for Pathetix, and in Adams’ later works, Dilbert worked for “Confusco” and “Elbonia.” It’s important to note here that Dilbert was loosely based on Scott Adams’ actual time at Pacific Bell, where he worked in finance. So, you see, where Adams got his idea for the comic strip; it was through his own personal experience. Also, a lot of the escapades you see throughout the comic strip were loosely based on Adams’ time at Pacific Bell.
Now where this applies to small business. Owners are often faced with the challenge of managing their employees effectively. In many cases, small businesses are run by individuals who have little experience managing people, and they may not be equipped with the skills needed to identify and promote the best employees. As a result, small businesses may inadvertently promote employees who are not suited for leadership roles.
In the context of small businesses, the Dilbert Principle can actually apply big time! Business owners promote employees based on factors such as popularity rather than competency. Or, in the case of what I’m going to get to here shortly, business owners don’t have the heart to actually let go of these employees for they feel bad about terminating them. This issue can lead to a situation where incompetent employees are placed in positions of power, which can have serious ramifications for the entire company.
Finally! Here’s the story I’ve been promising. I used to live in Southern California. In fact, I was born and raised there. I used to have some neighbors that were a really nice older couple who owned a lawn mower shop nearby. This older couple were real salts of the Earth, and we always had friendly conversations whenever we crossed paths. While we weren’t exactly having weekend barbeques together, our families got along pretty well.
Moving forward, I used to mow my own lawn back in the day because I didn’t believe in paying someone else for something I could do myself. But whenever my mower would break down, my neighbors were always happy to help me out with repairs. They were my go-to whenever I needed some fixing to be done.
One day, I noticed that I hadn’t seen or heard from my neighbors for quite some time. Then out of the blue, bam! Their house suddenly went up for sale. I couldn’t help but wonder, what was going on here? I wasn’t trying to be nosy, but I genuinely had concerns about their sudden absence at this point. Finally, I decided to pay them a visit to find out exactly what was the deal. I hadn’t seen them in a while, and I worried that one of them might have passed away.
What actually happened was their lawn mower shop had burned down. Apparently, they had a young repairman working for them who was terrible at repairs. Instead of firing him, they promoted him to the manager of the shop, where he was in charge of customer service and other responsibilities. One of his duties was to make sure that all the equipment was turned off when the shop closed up for the night. Unfortunately, the welding equipment was left one evening, which led to the fire. To compound the matter, the insurance company refused to pay out because of suspicious circumstances behind the fire. The case went to court, and I lost track of my neighbors after they moved away, so I don’t know how it really ended.
All in all, it was a really sorry set of circumstances, and it’s a shame that their shop burned. My heart went out to my former neighbors, and I hope they were able to recover and rebuild their lives.
To wrap things up here, I’m not trying to be funny here with this horror story in any way once so ever. But it’s like that weird Hair Club commercial, where they say at the end, “I’m not only the Hair Club president but I’m also a client”. In my case, “I’m not only a spectator but I can also relate”. As a witness to the Dilbert Principle in my own life, I definitely can relate to how bad incompetence can get.
So, to reiterate, the Dilbert Principle is a real phenomenon that can affect businesses of all sizes, including small businesses. By taking steps to identify and promote competent employees that are right for the position, small business owners can avoid the negative consequences of the Dilbert Principle and build a strong, capable team that can help their business thrive. Also, small business owners should focus on identifying and promoting those who demonstrate strong leadership skills and a commitment to the company’s goals. This means looking beyond feeling bad and instead evaluating employees based on their performance and potential.
Adams, Scott. The Dilbert Principle: A cubicle’s-eye view of bosses, meetings, management fads, and other workplace afflictions. Harper-Collins, 1996.
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